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District Court Permits Landowner to Pursue Hazardous Material Dumping Case Against the U.S. Navy

Illustrating what constitutes sufficient notice to the government of the value of a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), a Maryland federal court rejected the Navy’s claim that it had insufficient notice of the value of a claim stemming from environmental contamination. Baker v. United States, No. MJG-17-546 (D.Md Aug. 9, 2017). Instead, the court held that the Navy had sufficient notice of the total value of the landowner’s administrative claims.

Frederick Baker bought land in 2003 and later discovered that the Navy had used the land decades before for waste and oil disposal. In 2012, Baker discovered the Navy trespassing on his land for a construction project. In settling the matter of trespass, the Navy agreed to remove historical waste from the site and test the area for contamination. Based on the results of its study, the Navy informed Baker that it had contaminated both his land and his drinking water well with gasoline organics, rendering the water undrinkable.

Under the requirements of the FTCA, a claimant must notify the agency of the alleged value of the claim, including enough information to allow the agency to investigate the claim. In August 2014, Baker filed two administrative claim forms: one for $149,100 accounting for property value diminution as a result of the contamination and one for $20,761.86 for the cost of connecting the property to a public water system. Baker included a property appraisal indicating the total value of the uncontaminated property was $710,000 and requested either $149,100 for the diminished value of the property, or that the Navy purchase the property for $710,000. The Navy denied Baker’s claims and Baker filed suit under the FTCA for the full property value. The Navy contended that it was only on notice up to the amount of the two administrative claims, $169,861.86, and sought to limit the amount Baker could recover to that amount.

The court noted that the administrative claim is a “typical procedure for notice.” However, it also made clear that notice of the value of the claim through an administrative claim “is not required…provided that the claimant’s supplied material provides sufficient information to apprise the United States that a claim is being asserted against them and a specified amount of damages.” The court held that Baker’s inclusion of detailed appraisals and specific amounts for the land value informed the Navy of its maximum exposure and sufficiently notified the agency.